More than 1,600 Nova Scotia men have called a 24-hour helpline since it launched a year ago in response to increasing requests for help from men at the start of the pandemic.
That means social workers answered an average of 4.4 calls each day, every day, for a year — even though Family Services of Eastern Nova Scotia hardly publicized the pilot project, its executive director told the Desmond fatality inquiry Wednesday.
The province approached Nancy MacDonald about the need for a helpline after seeing a 75 per cent spike in calls to 211 from men in the first months of pandemic lockdown.
MacDonald spearheaded the creation of a men's health centre in Antigonish, which is why the province contacted her team to lead the telehealth project, she testified.
Since then, two other 24-hour hotlines have been created: one for women and one for all genders, all of which offer a 30-minute session with a social worker.
MacDonald was called as an expert witness at the fatality inquiry underway in Port Hawkesbury, which is examining the circumstances leading to Jan. 3, 2017, when Lionel Desmond shot his wife, Shanna; his daughter, Aaliyah; his mother, Brenda; and then himself inside his in-laws' house in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.
The inquiry's mandate is to try to prevent future deaths by considering whether changes to the systems the family interacted with — including health care and domestic violence prevention — ought to be changed.
Funding for the helplines come from the provincial grants for domestic violence programs — and MacDonald notes that the helpline for men is critical in making women safer, too. The purpose of each call is not to delve into the client's history, but to help them feel calm, to deal with an immediate issue, and to potentially refer the caller to ongoing counselling or services in the community.
"Any time we can help males or people who identify as being males feel more balanced and more grounded and less in duress, the more we increase safety for women and children and … any other marginalized populations," she testified.
Desmond, a veteran of Afghanistan with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, never interacted with MacDonald, but he did contact the Family Services office, first to set up couples' counselling and then, on the day of the shootings, to change his counselling session to an individual one.
Funding for men's health
An administrative assistant would have spoken to Desmond on both calls, MacDonald testified, but she said the assistant would have been trained to bring a social worker onto the call if the caller seemed in distress.
There's nothing in the note to indicate that Desmond was in crisis on Jan. 3, 2017, she testified. Her testimony echoes that of the other professionals who interacted with Desmond that day, including his counsellor who spoke to him on the phone and the man who sold him a gun.
But had he called today, MacDonald said, Desmond would have been referred to 24-hour hotline in case he felt he needed support before his appointment. When asked about recommendations for the future, she suggested that ensuring ongoing funding is available for both the helpline and for men's health and community services.
Tara Miller, a lawyer representing Brenda and Aaliyah Desmond's estates at the inquiry, said in an interview that she can't help but wonder whether that helpline could have offered support to Lionel Desmond and helped him to regulate his emotions.
"It's meant to be able to help the person in that moment to bring the emotions down, and I think that there's value to that," Miller said.
"I'm not sure how that might have played with the severity and the magnitude of Lionel's PTSD, but I can't help but wonder ... what if? What if he'd had access to that to help him bring his emotions down in that moment, or any moment?"
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